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Exploring Social Security benefits for the child of a deceased parent

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Few words describe the pain of losing a parent. The feelings of sadness and grief a child experiences after losing their mom or dad can be an extremely heavy weight to bear.

In addition to your grief, you may also be feeling significant stress due to the impact the loss has on your household's finances. Exploring financial resources that can add some stability to your child's life may be difficult during this time, but it's critical. Fortunately, you may find some support through Social Security benefits.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) provides financial support for workers and their families. Benefits such as retirement, disability and survivor support become available as workers earn income, pay taxes and accumulate credits. Survivor benefits arrive in the form of monthly payments for the family of a deceased provider. Eligible family members include spouses, children, stepchildren and others who are dependent on the individual's income.

Here are the key details to know.

Who is eligible for Social Security survivor benefits?

The child of a deceased biological parent or legal guardian can receive survivor benefits if they're under the age of 18 (or are age 19 but still in high school). In most cases, these benefits end once the child becomes an adult. Under certain circumstances—stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren and adopted children may also qualify for survivor benefits.

Additionally, adult children with a qualifying disability can receive survivor benefits for life or until they marry.

How much does a child get for survivor benefits?

An eligible child can receive 75% of their parent's retirement benefit. The parent's benefit amount depends on their earnings and how long they worked. The longer they worked, the higher the benefit.

In addition, there are other considerations related to child survivor benefits that can affect the amount paid out. These include whether the deceased parent had multiple children and whether the children are eligible for a lump sum death payment.

What happens if the deceased has multiple children?

When a deceased parent has multiple children, the amount each child receives depends on the total amount paid to all eligible family members.

Survivor benefits (and all Social Security benefits) get split among beneficiaries. Because each beneficiary is eligible for a predetermined percentage of the deceased parent's retirement, a family payout can—and often times does—exceed what the parent would have received at their normal retirement age. This can be considered an added perk of the program.

However, there is a limit to what a family can receive. In most cases, the maximum is between 150% to 180% of the full retirement amount. Once the family reaches the limit, the SSA decreases payments for each beneficiary proportionately.

The more beneficiaries there are, the likelier the family is to approach the maximum. If this is the case for you, consider speaking with your local SSA representative for a better estimate of each child's potential monthly payment.

Is a child eligible for the lump sum death payment?

In addition to a monthly payout, the child may be able to receive a lump sum death payment. The death benefit is a one-time deposit of $255, usually paid to the surviving spouse. When there is no eligible spouse, the child or children of the deceased may qualify for the benefit as long as they apply within two years of the parent's death.

How to apply for Social Security survivor benefits for a child

You can apply for child benefits by calling or visiting your local Social Security office. The SSA does not allow online applications for survivor benefits.

The agency may request several documents to verify identities and other details, including:

  • Death certificate
  • Parent and child's Social Security numbers
  • Child's birth certificate or proof of adoption
  • For a stepchild, proof of the parent's marriage to the child's natural or adoptive parent

As the surviving spouse or primary caregiver, you may also be eligible to receive survivor benefits. The SSA may ask you to provide your birth certificate, proof of U.S. citizenship and other documents verifying your situation. The SSA offers a complete list of what you may need to apply for child survivor benefits.

If you have trouble finding the requested documents, you can still call and schedule an appointment. Your local SSA representative will help you find the information you need.

When can a child expect to receive survivor benefits?

In general, you'll want to apply for survivor benefits as early as possible. The process can take several weeks as the agency determines eligibility. If the SSA is overloaded with requests, the child could wait months for their first payment.

Once approved, the SSA follows the following monthly payment schedule based on the deceased's birthday:

  • For birthdays falling between the 1st and 10th of the month, payments are made every second Wednesday.
  • For birthdays falling between the 11th and the 20th of the month, payments are made every third Wednesday.
  • For birthdays falling between the 21st and the 31st of the month, payments are made every fourth Wednesday.

Getting started

Losing a loved one is difficult—particularly as their child, and if they were a central provider for the family. But securing the child's future is still possible after they lose a parent, freeing up more space to grieve.

With the right support, you can help maintain your family's most important financial goals. However, it can be tough to focus on reaching this level of financial clarity when grieving. Planning ahead can make guiding yourself and others through this time a little easier.

A financial advisor can help as you explore Social Security benefits and eligibility. Connect with a Thrivent financial advisor for these and other estate management needs.

Thrivent financial advisors and professionals have general knowledge of the Social Security tenets. For complete details on your situation, contact the Social Security Administration.